Vol. 16, No.22  Nov. 6 - Nov. 19, 2003


A Close-Knit Community Mourns Murdered Teen

By Heather Haddon

Two years ago, 15-year-old Kamal Singh decided to devote two days of his spring vacation to learning about violence prevention. He was joined by three other members of the COVE - a Knox-Gates neighborhood organization. The gold certificate from the training still hangs in the COVE office, but the basement headquarters is no longer a second home to Kamal.

Affectionately known as "Peanut," Kamal tragically became a victim of violence when he was killed on the morning of Oct. 24. Two 17-year-old males are charged with second degree murder for jumping and shooting Kamal around 10:30 a.m. after he disembarked from the bus after a shortened school day. He was just a block away from home, from the COVE, and from a community that knew and loved him.

"There are seven stages of grief, and I'm in the anger stage," said Kamal's mother, Guerlain (Gail) Singh, while looking out onto a memorial service held at the COVE last Friday. "It hurts. The whole community is hurting."

Elaine Smith, Kamal's godmother and longtime friend of the family, feels like she lost one of her own children. "He was a great kid," Smith said. "I've never heard anything negative about him."

But Jonathan Fernandez and Giovani Perez, both from Highbridge, had enough beef with Kamal to kill him that Friday morning. Neither youth attended University Heights High School with Kamal, but police sources suspect that Fernandez had a fight with Kamal earlier in the week. "[Revenge] is one angle we are investigating," said a police source who asked not to be identified. 

According to police reports, Perez shot Kamal in the chest with a .40-caliber pistol after he resisted his attackers. He was rushed to Montefiore Medical Center, but was pronounced dead on arrival.

Smith accompanied Kamal's 19-year-old brother, Rubbens, to the hospital. "First thing he said was 'Kamal, I'm sorry,'" said Smith, 55. "He felt like he should have been there for Kamal ... that he had failed him in some way." 

But there is no doubt that the Singh family - and much of the Knox-Gates community - kept their eye on this teen known for both his humor and keen sense of civic duty. "Kamal was one of the leaders," said Shepard McDaniel, the COVE's executive director. "He was one of the kids who showed me around when I first started here."

An articulate joker 
Kamal joined the COVE when he was old enough to participate. Moving from Rochambeau Avenue, Kamal's family settled into their home at 3418 Gates Place when he was 2 months old. They blended into the diversity of the densely packed triangle- shaped neighborhood known to residents as Knox-Gates. Gail Singh is from Haiti while Kamal's father, who does not live with the family, is an Indian Sikh. 

Kamal learned a lot from his iron-willed mother, according to friends. A full-time teacher at PS 142, Singh is a devoted parishioner of St. Ann's Catholic Church (both boys attended altar guild). "Gail did a tremendous job raising her son," said Charlyn Nater, 21, a COVE counselor.

While Kamal might not have attended church every Sunday with his mother, he knew right from wrong, friends and relatives said. "He'd take the bags from your arms," Smith said. Three days before he was killed, Kamal hopped up from a bench and helped Smith with her groceries.

Kamal also carried around the concerns of neighborhood youth who confided in him, according to neighbor Lucy Lopez, a school aide at PS/MS 95. "He would always play with the younger kids and give them advice," said Lopez, 45, who has lived on Knox Place for 21 years. "He didn't bother nobody."

Some considered Kamal a role model. "Kamal was the one who told me to go back to school," said Irvin Peel, 17, who now attends a GED program. "He was always thinking of other people and what [they] wanted to do."

Others said they looked out for him. "I took care of him like my own brother," said Anthony Gonzalez, 18, through tears. "He thought about starting a rapping career."

On two boards hanging at the COVE, rows of photos depict Kamal's many other interests: computers, basketball, journalism and photography. Three consecutive shots show Kamal receiving student improvement awards from McDaniel.

Kamal's sense of humor was well known. "Kamal was a big joker," said Lyn Pyle, a COVE founder. "But he was also serious and very articulate."

Others who worked with Kamal agreed. "His concerns were really the concerns of the community," said Paul Sawyer, director of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park advocacy group, who worked with Kamal on a project to redesign the park's southeast corner. 

Kamal thought the park's most barren corner deserved to have a basketball court and other amenities. Kamal was one of the COVE members scheduled to meet with a Department of Environmental Protection official in November to discuss the filtration plant planned for the park. 

A year ago, Kamal attended a COVE-sponsored forum at MS 80 to create a cleaner and safer Knox-Gates Playground. He and other teens asked officials for more lights and to trim the trees back. "We got everything done," McDaniel said.

Except for increased policing. Raymond Rooney, the precinct commander then, acknowledged that, with manpower down, community policing was on hold for the 52nd Precinct. In a recent interview with current precinct commander Joseph Hoch, citywide initiatives are still taking priority over neighborhood beats.

Gang connection doubted
On a recent weekday evening, a police car was stationed on Mosholu Parkway. While the park is quiet since the shooting, that tranquility is atypical, according to Lopez. By noon, when she walks home from work, she sees students from both MS 80 and DeWitt Clinton loitering along the parkway. 

"Kids walk all over Mosholu Parkway at all times of the night," Sawyer said. "Sometimes I have to stop my car because they are crossing the street everywhere." Views were mixed about whether teen violence was on the rise in the area.

"I think [violence among teens] has gotten worse lately," said Gladys Valdivieso, a Wayne Avenue resident who is a COVE board member. "This is not how this neighborhood used to be."

Lauren Greilsheimer, director of the MS 80-based Beacon program, said she heard about gang activity more than she actually witnessed it. "I see kids losing it over little things," like similar sneakers or stolen batteries, Greilsheimer said. "It's stuff you find in most neighborhoods."

Police said they did not suspect the shooting was related to gangs. "We don't think it [the shooting] was gang related," said the police source. "We haven't had anything like that happening recently." 

While police are treating the crime as a random act of violence, some media accounts pointed to gang activity. The New York Times associated Kamal with a group called "M-Mob." 

McDaniel thinks that's preposterous. "The M-Mob is some little crew of knuckleheads that sells drugs along the parkway," he said. "[Kamal] was definitely not part of any of that crap. He was a COVE member. [Preventing violence] is why we are here."

While Kamal kept many things to himself, others knew he had a good head. "He knew what he wanted and was heading for the right path," Nater said.

More than anything, Kamal was a teen-ager. "He wanted to be popular and be social," Singh said. "He was tall, good looking and thinking he was a hero." As McDaniel put it, "Kamal was just growing up." 

Not that growing up is easy. During the COVE's conflict resolution classes, Valdivieso tells teens to back down when things get heated. "But when you get jumped by a whole bunch of them, how do you walk away from that?" she asked.

Still devastated
On a recent evening, Knox-Gates teens and adults were huddled in small groups outside. "It happened across the street," whispered one man to another. The memorial's votive candles flickered and a yellow flier featuring Kamal's photo was taped next to it. 

"My daughter is going to miss him," said Lopez about her 16-year-old, who grew up with Kamal. "The day before they were teasing and making fun of each other. The next day she was crying."

Sawyer choked up when he heard the news. "To see a kid who had real potential ... snuffed out like that is a real loss," he said. The Friends will plant a tree in memory of Kamal in the park's southeast corner. 

But the Singhs are feeling the brunt of the loss. "I wish I would wake up and it was a dream," said Kamal's 22-year-old cousin, Gastride Paris. "The whole world seems different. The chair where he usually sits during Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner ... he won't be there anymore."

The COVE has also been hit hard. "The younger kids got off the school buses that day and it was just an emotional outburst," McDaniel said. Around 30 kids showed up at the COVE on Monday to talk and plan. "I've told them this is not about payback," he said.

As for McDaniel, he has been immersed in helping the Singh family, and the COVE, cope. He sat down heavily at the brand new computer donated to help create the COVE's newsletter - a project Kamal was excited about. "I'm staying busy, so it's not sinking in yet," he said, looking tired. "But we're all feeling this." 

While costumed trick-or-treaters made their rounds of the neighborhood on Halloween, about 40 residents gathered at a Friday night memorial service and dedication (the COVE facility is now known as the Kamal Singh Youth Center). Looking out on the rows of teens, Paris appealed to them to forgo street life and honor Kamal by focusing on their future. "I never thought they would be teenagers, younger than 20, that would be carrying him in his casket," she said, weeping. "You are too young for any of your friends to bury you."

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